The day Art Williams became the first black umpire in the National League
After a call-up from the minors, Williams stayed in the majors from 1972 to 1977
When Art Williams entered San Diego Stadium, his knees buckled and he took a big gulp. The first thing he saw walking into the home of the San Diego Padres was the message on the big board: “Welcome Art Williams, the National League’s First Black Umpire.”
This was going to be the biggest thrill of his life.
“I looked up in the stands and saw my wife clapping and crying,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I knew that it was all worthwhile.”
Williams left a career as a supervisor with Bakersfield, California’s, sanitation department to take a low-paying job as a minor-league umpire. After four years in the minors, Williams caught a break when he was asked to umpire the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 3-2 win over the Padres on Sept. 18, 1972.
Not only did it make Williams the first black umpire in the NL, it also meant he would start earning a minimum salary of $14,000 plus the $40 per diem. A father of five, Williams’ career shift had forced his wife to work 60 hours a week until his big promotion.
“It was a good job,” he told the Times. “But I’ve always loved baseball and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I wanted to get back.”
Williams said he met no opposition or harassment on his rise to the majors. Those conditions, if they ever existed, were wiped out by the popularity of Emmett Ashford, the first African-American to umpire in a major league baseball game, he told the Times.
Williams umpired at third base and faced no difficult calls during the three-game series. He made calls precisely and avoided being too showy. His movement was described as that of a former athlete, which he was.
“I want to earn the respect of the players and the managers,” said Williams.
The former minor league pitcher began his career in officiating at Little League and high school games.
“Every time I worked a game, I’d come home and say, ‘Well, everything went smooth again today. I know I can do it.’ Finally, my wife said, ‘OK, go ahead.’
“I had left a good job. The pay in the lower minors is terrible. I couldn’t have made it if not for my wife. She worked 40 hours a week as a nurse, 20 hours at another job and kept house for the kids. She never stopped encouraging me.”
After graduating from umpire school in Florida, Williams advanced through the Pioneer League to the Midwest, Texas and International leagues.
Fred Fleig was to Williams what Branch Rickey was to Jackie Robinson. Fleig, the NL’s supervisor of umpires, scouted Williams in San Diego. He called the 38-year-old Williams once the International League season concluded.
“I was more nervous than I have ever been in my entire life,” Williams told the Baltimore Afro-American. “My thoughts were just to get a call and do it right. I want to be an asset to the National League umpiring staff.”
Five years after umpiring his first game, Williams was dismissed by the NL after the 1977 season for incompetence. Williams alleged the firing was racially motivated as the league didn’t want him and Eric Gregg, the third black umpire in the majors, working at the same time. Williams filed a complaint before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York. The complaint was pending at the time of his death in 1979, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Williams drove a bus in Bakersfield until suffering a seizure in 1978. He underwent brain surgery on Dec. 28 and died six weeks later. A family spokesman said he never fully came out of a coma. He was 44.